Op-Ed Contributors

Debate: School selection fees

Updated: 2011-09-26 08:07

By Xiong Bingqi (China Daily)

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Should schools charging school-selection and other arbitrary fees be penalized? Two experts and a journalist present their views.

Public should be part of decisions

This year school-selection fees in some key Beijing primary schools were reported to be as high as 250,000 yuan ($39,125). The common interests of the local education department, schools and agencies have turned the school-selection fees into a chronic disease, although the Compulsory Education Law implemented in 2006 states: "School-age children and adolescents shall be exempted from entrance examinations (and) local people's governments at various levels shall ensure that school-age children and adolescents enroll in schools near the places their residences are registered."

In other words, the law says that the government should promote balanced development in compulsory education. But despite the government's crackdown on the illegal practice of charging school-selection fees, the trend has grown.

The situation has deteriorated because the government's move is considered a mere slogan rather than a concerted effort carried out at local levels to promote balanced compulsory education. Generally speaking, three factors have thwarted the balanced development of compulsory education.

First, unreasonable and insecure funding for compulsory education have prompted schools to charge such fees and even increase them with the passage of time. Also, the insecure financial state of schools is an important reason for the severe imbalance between schools in rural and urban areas and different regions of the country. The mechanism has not changed much even after government efforts to promote balanced compulsory education.

Second, the severe lack of funds for compulsory education has worsened the situation. The National Audit Office covered 54 counties for a survey on funds for rural compulsory education from January 2006 to June 2007. The results showed that eight of the counties failed to allot funds as regulated and five reduced the amounts instead of increasing them.

And third, local governments have paid special attention to senior middle schools and high schools because their quality of education determines the percentage of students from schools in their jurisdictions clearing the national college entrance exam and getting admitted to prestigious universities. No wonder, even though the Compulsory Education Law says proportionate funds should be allotted to all sections of schools during the nine-year compulsory education, few local governments actually do so.

Unbalanced development of compulsory education may "favor" many local governments, because it could help generate extra revenue from school-selection fees and reduce their financial inputs into education. The education departments could even save some funds by exchanging resources with other government departments.

The school-selection fees, which for all intents and purposes are illegal, should be banned immediately to ensure that compulsory education develops in a balanced and proper way. The fund security mechanism for compulsory education should be changed and efforts made at both national and local levels to increase the allocations. Besides, an education management system must be established to guarantee the public's right to participate in decision-making and supervision.

At present, the government alone decides how much funding should be allocated to the education sector and/or how it should be used. And many times, the funds are allotted haphazardly. Therefore, to solve this problem, the public should have the right to know, participate, express its opinion, make decisions and supervise the authorities. And only by systematically carrying out these measures for reform and development can we get out of the predicament and ensure balanced development of compulsory education.

The author is deputy director of Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute.

Li Jianzhong

Motto should be education, not profit

School-selection fees have soared along with commodity prices. In Beijing, for example, the fees have risen from about 7,000 yuan ($1,095) in the 1990s to more than 30,000 yuan. Some media reports even said that the school-selection fees, in some "premier" schools were as high as 250,000 yuan this year.

Last year, the Ministry of Education vowed to eradicate school-selection fees in three to five years. Earlier this year, the Beijing municipal education commission issued a regulation banning all arbitrary charges, including school-selection fees and "sponsorship fees", for enrollment in primary schools and pre-schools.

The school-selection fees and "sponsorship fees" charged by schools may have been banned, but schools still take such fees and parents still pay them.

If not, how could Wang Cuijuan, former principal of Zhongguancun No 3 Elementary School, one of the city's top schools, be charged with embezzling more than 100 million yuan from the school's "off-the-book" funds that came mostly from "sponsorship fees" paid by students' parents? In Zhongguancun No 3 Elementary School's case, mostly people who do not live in the district and should not have admitted their children to the school had paid such fees.

In another case, the former principal of Beijing No 54 Middle School, surnamed Li, was convicted of misappropriating 270,000 yuan from the amount collected as school-selection fees to buy a house built by the government for lower-income families. Li was sentenced to three years' imprisonment last year.

Schools charge and parents pay school-selection fees and "sponsorship fees" for various reasons. Parents pay them to get their children admitted to a "good" school. The phenomenon mirrors social inequality, and parents are desperate to choose "premier" schools for their children because education is a ticket to social mobility and opens the door to a higher social class.

It's a pity that some prestigious schools have buried their integrity and are trading education for profit. And they are least bothered about having commercialized public educational resources.

Besides, Chinese parents are more worried about children's education than their foreign counterparts. Their concern, which in some cases resembles vanity, and the high expectation they have from their children have made enrollment in schools a lucrative, though illegal, business.

This business has to be eradicated to restore sanity and ensure a balanced development of education. Last year, the central government released the State guidelines for middle- and long-term educational reform and development plan (2010-2020) and promised to spend 4 percent of its GDP on education by 2012. Its aim is to standardize the now diverse quality of education in schools and strike a balance in the distribution of educational resources and quality of education in urban and rural areas.

To eradicate such practices, the government has to enact laws that would make charging school-selection fees and "sponsorship fees" a crime. Although some authorities have issued quite a number of regulations to prohibit school-selection fees, they have done little to translate them into concrete action.

Perhaps China could learn from India in this case. India's Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act says the penalty for charging arbitrary fees will be ten times the amount charged. China could implement similar punitive measures against arbitrary school fees to fight the menace.

Schools should be student-oriented and dedicated to cultivating talents instead of making profit.

The author is a researcher with the China National Institute for Education Research, affiliated to the Ministry of Education.

Wang Yiqing

Society to blame for state of affairs

Almost all parents complain about the arbitrary fees charged by schools to admit children, but interestingly most of them end up paying them. The "rat race" that education has become compels them to become part of the very system they criticize.

Perhaps the intense competition in education has something to do with the traditional Chinese concept about education.

Parents' emphasis on education does reflect that they still believe in the old Chinese sayings: "To be a scholar is to be at the top of society" and "A person who excels in study can become an official". Throughout China's history, parents have accorded priority to their children's education because they believe that only through education can recognition, respect and wealth be achieved. That is understandable, for education, to a large extent, gave people social mobility in feudal Chinese society.

Chinese parents have always had a strong sense of responsibility, especially when it came to their children's growth and development. They tend to regard their children's future as their responsibility. Under such circumstances, many parents are apt to emphasize the importance of education for their children even if they have to literally pay a high price for it.

Moreover, a huge number of Chinese families have only one child because of the family planning policy that China has followed for three decades. Since single-child families are tight-nit, parents' resolve to ensure their children get the best education possible has become stronger.

Parents can be blamed for being caught in a trap of their own making and furthering the blind competition in education, but we cannot convince them to give up their quest. The root of the vicious cycle lies in society. The situation has changed little compared with even the distant past. But again, society today doesn't provide many options for children to chart a good future.

In the competitive employment market, it is difficult to get a good job without a college diploma and sometimes even a college diploma fails to ensure that. We have little to say if children ask us what else they could do to pursue a better life except study hard and excel in exams.

A strong sense of social unfairness has heightened the worries of parents and their children about the future, and forced them to take the difficult road.

A recent incident in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, is enlightening. People across the country criticize the "Olympic Math Contest" training classes because they increase students' burden. But when the education department in Xi'an decided to ban the training classes, the students opposed it for fear of losing the opportunity to study harder and some of them even tried to drive the educational department administrators out of classrooms. One parent appealed in tears: "If the authorities want to ban these training classes, they should provide our children a fair and justifiable way to get enrolled in 'good' schools first."

The parents not only complained about unfair distribution of educational resources, but also demanded a fair rule for competition. In a society that is full of "hidden rules", exams and scores are the only "fair" way that common people can count on.

Children from poor families, especially from rural areas, can rely on nothing but their academic achievements to prove their competence and be accepted into the "mainstream". But it seems that even the last "fair" way of achieving success is getting narrower by the day.

To rid society of unfair "sponsorship fees" and unequal competition for admission to schools, maybe the authorities should first take measures to diversify the ways for common people to improve their social mobility and offer them more opportunities.

The author is a reporter with China Daily.

(China Daily 09/26/2011 page9)


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